Some movies depend on very preposterous premise you cannot believe easily, and “Poongsan”, one of the latest South Korean movies, is a good case. How can he cross the border between South Korea and North Korea so easily? How can he go freely in North Korea while not noticed by soldiers? If you cannot accept this outrageous ability of his, then you will not believe at all what this invincible guy does to his opponents later in the story.
Fortunately, the movie has enough conviction to make me accept the premise and be amused by his activities throughout the running time. Starting as an art house movie version of action thriller, it eventually turns out to be both melodrama and, unexpectedly, symbolic black comedy on a long, destructive relationship between South and North Korea for more than 60 years. All factors do not work in its flawed screenplay, but it manages to keep our attention until it is stalled in a predictable plot progression during the second half, and it has a compelling character who, like other supporting characters, deserves a little better plot.
Like many heroes of the films directed by Kim Ki-duk, who produced this film and wrote its screenplay, the hero of “Poongsan”, played by Yoon Gye-sang, does not say anything. His name is never mentioned. We do not know anything about him – his past or how he comes to do his dangerous job. He lives alone in a shabby place somewhere in Seoul, and he seems to content with his solitary. Only one notable thing about him is that he likes North Korean cigarette named Poongsan, a North Korean canine breed.
There are many families separated by the division between South and North Korea. They desperately want to know where their loved ones are and send their messages to them. He is the guy they need. For delivering the messages, he secretly goes back and forth across the border heavily guarded and monitored by the soldiers on both sides. He carefully crosses the reed and the river with some preparations, including covering his body with mud to avoid being detected by the infrared cameras. And, at the last step, this is quite outrageous, he pole-jumps over the barbed iron fence. Don’t even ask me about how the hell he finds the people to receive the messages in North Korea so quickly.
Sometimes, he also brings the people to South. It is riskier than usual, but he seems not to mind about that, and he is ready to handle the unexpected situation when the troubles occur during his operation. Thanks to his services, his clients are happy to correspond with their lost family members beyond the border, while saddened by the lost years between them. In one poignant scene, an old North Korean lady only looks at the video camera without saying anything; her dying husband in South Korea is heartbroken by her silent image.
One day, he gets the attention of people from South Korean National Intelligence Service. They contact him because they want to bring some woman from Pyongyang. While pressed by them to write the report based on his valuable information(we never know what it is), a North Korean defect executive(Kim Jong-soo) under their protection demands them to bring the girl he adored, As soon as they ask him to deliver the girl, he instantly starts to work. He finishes his job within 3 hours.
Wait a minute, how that can be possible? Maybe we can accept that he is very, very good at locating people and evading the soldiers on the border, but, can you believe that he can go to Pyongyang and then come back to South Korea only during 3 hours? He does not even use the airplane – he just rides the bicycle or runs or walks. Is that really possible? Maybe he is a Korean version of Captain America, I guess.
Anyway, he succeeds again. He brings the woman, In-ok, played by Kim Gyoo-ree, to the South Korean agents. But they have other thoughts, so the situation becomes more complicated than usual. Plus, In-ok’s lover, paranoid about the assassination by North Korean and pressured by South Korea, senses there is something between In-ok and the man who brings her to him. Though she is in South Korea, In-ok feels like being trapped as much as she was in North Korea in her lover’s safety house, and that more stimulates his jealousy.
If you are familiar with Kim Ki-duk’s films, you now probably think of one of his works, “3-iron”(2004), which is about a triangular relationship between a man with unexplainable supernatural ability, a trapped woman, and her possessive man. The director Jeon Jae-hong, one of Kim’s protégé directors, did a good job to make us believe his hero’s unreal abilities while keeping things real. Later in the movie, his hero has to clash with many agents, and he somehow keeps going on even when he has been tortured a lot. Compared to Kim Ki-duk’s films, the level of violence is relatively mild in the torture scenes, but I have to say one brief scene will particularly make your sphincter cringe.
Despite a mute but defiant lead performance by Yoon Gye-Sang and other good things, the movie does not entirely overcomes its inherent flaws. The second half of the movie falls apart in a heavy-handed way while bitterly laughing on the incorrigible conflict that has broken common people’s hearts. There are some humorous moments in the film, but they usually make the supporting characters look rather silly. And, in case of Kim Gyoo-ree, her talent is wasted with flat characterization. Due to the lack of the chemistry between her and Yoon, I am not convinced about the relationship between them. In the scene where they try to show their feelings between them, I and other audiences could not help but giggle at this unintentionally hilarious scene. And I do not think its tacked-on finale works.
While I have lots of reservation toward “Poongsan”, I admire how the director and others sticks to its shaky premise with belief. Though it was made with relatively low budget in tight conditions, it is well-made and competent. Many of the actors and crews worked without guarantee, and I heard they could not have shot the last scene if they had made any mistake in only one take available to them. Like Kim Ki-duk, they are probably happy to know that, thanks to its success at South Korean theaters, they can be paid now.